By David Horst firstname.lastname@example.org
NEENAH, Wis. — As Alec Schussman fished below the Neenah dam last summer, he couldn’t have known that operation of the Fox River’s navigational locks hung in the balance based on how he responded to the tug he felt on his fishing line.
He reeled in a 5-inch round goby, the first verified catch of that invasive species in the lower Fox River system, just a short swim from Lake Winnebago.
Alec Schussman (left) caught and Tristen Knuijt
The Menasha Lock was immediately ordered closed to block the little egg-eating fish from swimming upstream into Wisconsin’s largest inland lake. The closure temporarily stranded boats from their winter harbors and threatened the annual revenue and elaborate plans of the Fox River Navigational System Authority, the quasi-governmental organization that operates the 17-lock system on the lower Fox River on behalf of the state.
Quite a burden for the junior at Neenah High School, and a testament to his involvement in his high school fishing club.
His fishing buddy since seventh grade, Tristen Knuijt, stood next to Alec, eyed the suction cup-shaped lower fin and black circle on the dorsal fin and knew it was a round goby.
The friends are founding members of Neenah’s Shattuck Middle School fishing team — the Finatics — and carried their interest into high school, starting a fishing club there as well.
Fishing teams are more common in Wisconsin schools than you might think. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Fishing Association counts 66 schools among its members, from Ashland to Boulder Junction. All of the state's UW campuses have fishing clubs or teams.
Tristen and a round goby he caught in Little Lake
“This is all they do,” Chris Jones, the faculty advisor for Neenah's fishing clubs, said. “This is their football team. This is their basketball team.”
Alec is tall and quiet, a slender tower of a young man. Tristen is an average sized high schooler and a willing talker — Butch to Alec’s Sundance. And if Tristen is talking, it’s about fishing.
The round goby is believed to have entered the Great Lakes in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. They were first detected in 1990. Its entry into the Lake Winnebago system would be an environmental and angling disaster. Winnebago and its upper lakes are home to the state’s largest population of the prehistoric sturgeon and a thriving game fishery.
Other fishermen had reported seeing round goby, but Alec’s was the first verified catch.
The teens knew they had to report the invasive species to the state Department of Natural Resources. As luck would have it, a warden they know drove up as they walked from their fishing spot. They told him about the round goby. He submitted it to a DNR lab that backed up Tristen’ s identification.
Their friends give them a hard time about their unusual catch. They ask the boys why they shut down the locks system. The Menasha lock, which separates Little Lake Butte des Morts and the Fox River from Lake Winnebago to the south, was closed for the final weeks of the 2015 boating season and will remain closed until further notice, according to the lock system authority’s CEO Robert Stark.
The DNR made special provisions for boaters who needed to get their boats to winter harbor above the Menasha lock. They set a day to let the boats lock through, treating the water in the lock with a chemical to kill any invasives that came along.
The navigational authority for years has had plans to build a boat lift at the Rapide Crouch lock near Wrightstown. Originally concerned about lamprey eels getting into the Winnebago system, the DNR ordered that lock permanently closed before restoration of the locks started 10 years ago. The boat lift would pull recreational craft out of the river, clean the hull in a warm water bath and deposit the boat back in the river on the other side of the closed lock. A second barrier in Menasha making passage into Lake Winnebago impossible would be a great disincentive for boaters to use the Rapide Crouche lift.
Finding round goby in the big lake would be bad news for fishermen, but would remove the need to keep the Menasha lock closed. The DNR is exploring other barrier techniques for keeping the goby out that would allow navigation.
Despite all of that, Tristen and Alec have no second thoughts.
“I’m glad I caught it,” Alec said, reflecting on the fishing disaster that could have resulted if the invasive went unnoticed.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to turn it in again,” Tristen said.
He has, in fact, turned in half a dozen more that he has caught since Alec reeled in the first one, more than the DNR has been able to catch.
“I’m out to slay as many of them as I can,” Tristen said.
Jones is proud of his students’ decision, but not surprised. “Think of the economic impact if it had gone undetected,” he said.
Tristen says he agrees with the DNR position that there are no round gobies in Lake Winnebago at this point, because he’s confident a fisherman would have caught one by now.